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Lincoln, the right hand of God


Abraham Lincoln is a mercurial character, a historical figure as difficult to get hold of as quicksilver. He was quite simply one of history’s great minds and for that reason alone Steven Spielberg’s epic Lincoln was always going to be a magnetic release. The film has gone on to have a profound effect on this year’s Academy Awards, even though scriptwriter Tony Kushner has joked he’s on his “967,000 book about Abraham Lincoln,” and still struggles to understand his achievements in the same way people struggled to understand the successes of Shakespeare and Mozart. But one thing Kushner couldn’t fail to convey was the president’s profound humility before an all-powerful God.

Lincoln opens in 1865 when the American Civil War has finally turned in favour of the Union and the president is considering the future of millions of negroes. Lincoln has already used his executive war powers to free all slaves but he’s afraid the courts will overturn this emancipation once the conflict ceases. If he’s going to guarantee their freedom the president must pass the 13th Amendment to the American Constitution, banning slavery for all time. However the clock is ticking: a peace delegation is on its way from the Confederate south and Lincoln is still short 20 votes. As the struggle to round up the numbers unfolds we gain an insight into just how close America came to turning its back on the equality of all men and women.

Lincoln entered this year’s Academy Awards with a staggering twelve nominations, a reflection of the high regard in which critics hold the film. Even its tiniest roles are crammed with significant actors, though none so deserving of attention as Daniel Day-Lewis. His portrayal of a principled, struggling Abraham who eventually becomes the father of a new nation is easily worth an Oscar. More importantly, Day-Lewis gives us an insight into a man who still considered God to be the foundation of government.

Spielberg presents many of the arguments for and against the 13th Amendment but God is at the crux of them all. Lee Pace, playing the spirited New York congressman Fernando Wood, opposes Lincoln’s amendment with the cry, “Congress must never declare equal what God has declared unequal.” But Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens rejects the suggestion the bill is an insult to God – “What insults God? You do, you unnatural noise.” And so the debate continues, with each side passionately invoking God’s support because it’s the Creator’s opinion that is considered to be the most important one. Lincoln, too, proceeds on the basis that God’s will should be humanity’s first guide, even if he personally struggles to be equal to the task:

Elizabeth Keckley: “They will pass the amendment – God will see to it.”

Lincoln: “I don’t envy him his task with the instrument he has chosen to serve him.”

What emerges from Lincoln is a portrait of a man who looks to a source of wisdom higher than himself to solve life’s big questions. Time and again the president is tempted by the prospect of a quick end to the war that would leave slavery in place, but he cannot embrace it because it would not be right in the eyes of God who manifestly declares, “… all men are created equal.” It’s a struggle bound to move audiences, maybe more so because it appeals to a principle our modern leaders have lost sight of.

Historically Abraham Lincoln appealed to a wisdom higher than his own to determine right over wrong. However we live in an age that acknowledges no wisdom higher than that of the individual. Postmodernism guarantees that any politician who dares to follows Lincoln’s lead is likely to be labeled a dangerous fundamentalist. Yet if the question of slavery faced Australia today we would sadly find ourselves without the motivation Lincoln needed to solve it.

It’s a familiar conceit of films like Lincoln to put the audience on the side of the victors, heralding freedom to the enslaved. But I wonder whether a more accurate representation of Australia would be the Confederate south. The secessionists ultimately held on to slavery because it was the backbone of their economy and its dissolution would mean the end of their way of life and a threatening future – in short, for convenience sake. Without a standard that rises higher than pragmatics, Australian politicians will forever court whichever approach makes voters the most comfortable. But Lincoln deserves its Oscars if only for reminding us of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address:

“With firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in.”

Lincoln won Academy Awards in 2013 for Best Actor (Daniel Day Lewis) and Best Production Design.